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The T3sk3y Defenestrator

Italy 2007 – Rome Part I

Our plan for the day was to visit the Vatican since it was supposed to be a slower day at what is normally a very hectic tourist destination. Before heading off for the day, we were able to take advantage of the nice kitchen where we were staying by making egg sandwiches for breakfast. To meet our tour group, we’d have to take the subway to the Vatican. The closest stop was only a 6 block walk from our apartment.

We were able to find our guide at the Vatican subway stop without much difficulty. Our tour was about 20 people – all English speakers. I was quickly able to see the benefit of the tour as we were able to bypass all lines and go straight inside. Another great plus was that we were issued radio receivers so we could hear our guide clearly.

That’s-a the biggest-a church-a inna the world-a

The tour was pretty good – our guide was able to give some good context and explanation for the things we saw in the Vatican museum. She was also able to fast forward us past the non-important things so that we could focus on the best things to see. This is critical since the Vatican museum is completely overwhelming. You can spend several hours wandering the millions of pieces of art – and you eventually get numb.

Heather and William marveling at the works in the Vatican Museum

The one part of the tour that still leaves me flat is the star of the show – the Sistine Chapel. This was my second visit – and I still don’t see the appeal! Yeah, it’s quite the ceiling – but it’s not an enjoyable viewing experience. It’s 50′ up and unlit – so it’s not like you can see it well. The chapel itself is pretty much a grandly painted gymnasium that is loaded with tourists shoving their way through. As if all that doesn’t make it for you – the guards constantly yelling “NO PICTURES!!!” pretty much finishes off the mood.

Isn’t your wife running for President?

Note: I didn’t take this shot, but kudos to the guy that ignored the yelling guards: Sistine Chapel

For me, the star of the show was St. Peter’s itself. It’s so grand that adjectives fail me on this one. We spent about an hour in there between the tour and our own wanderings. I’m still amazed that they removed all of the fresco paintings and replaced them with mosaics that were exact copies of the originals. I still think the ‘dead guys on display’ portion of the tour (i.e. potentially canonized Popes) is an acquired taste. One of the biggest chances since my visit in 2003 was the makeshift shrine that had formed around the tomb of John Paul II. It was amazing to see the outpouring of love demonstrated there much like we saw in Krakow, Poland (his hometown) in 2006.

St. Peter’s Basilica

We finished our tour in mid-afternoon and walked to a nearby neighborhood for a late lunch since we were all starving. We went to a kebab shop and had.. kebabs. I love kebabs. Heather and I had combo plates with fries, rice, and all the fixings. After finishing dinner, we took the subway back to our apartment for a rest.

Our plans for the evening were to go to a pizza restaurant recommended by the owner of the apartment we were staying in. It was called “Da Baffeto” – or “The Mustache”. Judging by the logo of the restaurant, I think it specifically refers to the handlebar mustache. After eating, we were going to take one of the night walking tours in Rick’s guide. It was a pretty good stroll to Da Baffeto from our apartment, and along the way I played the tour guide explaining the sites that we passed. Unfortunately, it was then that I realized that I left the guidebook at home and it was too far to walk back to get it. We’d have to settle for just dinner.

We found Da Baffeto without any difficulty and squeezed our way into a very packed and tiny little pizzeria. The signature pizza at Da Baffeto was obviously a concoction that included both anchovies and a big fried egg right in the middle. I usually try to order the special of the house – but I just couldn’t do it. I went for some sort of meatza which turned out to be fantastic. Dinner was finished off with some lemon sorbet frozen in to the hollowed out husk of a lemon.

The Colosseum at Night

When we got back to the apartment, I spent a few minutes before bed booking a tour of the forum and the Colosseum for the next day. We enjoyed our guided tour of the Vatican so much – we decided to splurge on another tour. This one was a different company – so we’d have some comparison.

I realized as I put this post together that for some strange reason, the pictures of the Vatican tour never made it up to my SmugMug site.  I’ve now uploaded them for all to see.  See them plus the rest of our pictures on my SmugMug site right here: link

Italy 2007 – Siena/Orvieto/Rome

The plan for today was to make it a leisurely drive from Siena to Rome – by way of Orvieto and Civita. Before heading on the road, we tried one last time to find breakfast in Siena. We found a cafeteria not far from our hotel that had a nice selection of pastries, sandwiches, cafe’, and more. By the time we got three egg sandwiches, three pastries, a couple of cafe’s, and a Coke Light, our bill came out to about 35 Euro. A $45 breakfast? Ouch!

The Ford Fiesta – ready to roll to Rome!

We loaded up the car and started making our way south. I had hoped for some great scenic vistas on the way to Orvieto – but the first half hour was in pea soup fog. We finally broke out of it and got on to a road where we could go faster than 20mph about an hour south of Siena. Just as we were coming out of it, we drove through an area loaded with agriturismos.. countryside B&Bs. I have no idea what they must cost – but what a view!

An agritourismo just south of Siena

The other unbelievable thing was the number of cyclists on the road – serious road racing types in full spandex and expensive bikes. It looked like a fantastic ride – but having crazy Italian drivers and lost Americans (ahem) whizzing by would be a little scary. Oh – I wish I had my bike!

We arrived in Orvieto in the early afternoon. Orvieto is one of the hill towns of central Italy – where the entire town is situated on a plateau several hundred feet above the valley floor. Before riding the funicular to the top, we had to make a quick grocery stop to get William some milk and diapers. Apparently it was the grand opening of the grocery store that day – so anybody that purchased more than 25 Euros got a free loaf of fruit bread much to my mother’s glee.

The view looking up the funicular tracks in Orvieto

At the top, we caught a shuttle bus that delivered us to the Orvieto Cathedral. According to the guidebooks, the cathedral sports one of the grandest facades in all of Italy. It did not disappoint! Even though it was a very gray day – it was busting with color and light. Apparently due to its natural fortifications, Orvieto was always considered a ‘hideaway’ for the popes – thus the grand cathedral.

The Orvieto Cathedral

After failing to find lunch on the square (darn off-season!), we set off on a wild goose chase following another Rick Steves hand drawn map that didn’t label any of the back alleys. Ultimately, we found what we were looking for – but, being November, it was closed. We settled for a little cafe’ where I had (guess what) – Pizza. We got some gelato after lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon browsing for souvenirs. One of the most comic moments was ditching my mother so we could buy her Christmas present – without realizing she was off shopping for Heather’s.

William waiting for his mommy and grandma to return from shopping

Our original plan was to visit Civita after we finished up in Orvieto. Since it was now late afternoon, there was just no chance we’d make it before sundown. It sounded like pretty much everything would be closed in Civita in the off-season – so if it was too dark to take pictures, there wasn’t much point in going there. We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in Orvieto before going straight to Rome.

The view of the old fortifications in Orvieto

We hiked our way back down to the funicular stop after a quick tour of the Cathedral. We got back to the car right at dusk and hopped onto the Autostrada that went directly from Orvieto to Rome (all roads lead to Rome, right?). It took about two hours to get to Rome and another half-hour to drive around the north side of Rome to reach the airport. We pulled in to the airport about 5 minutes before our taxi was due to pick us up.

The interior of the Orvieto Cathedral

For whatever reason, we missed the “Rental Car Return” sign at Fiumencino airport and had a tense few minutes as Heather ran in to the terminal to find where to go. As it turned out, it was in the ramp located right next to where we were parked. After returning the car, our taxi showed up and drove us directly to our apartment. After a week of driving in Italian traffic – it was a big relief to not have to drive!

Our apartment turned out to be the biggest score of the trip. I booked it on VRBO – and it was about half the cost of a hotel. It was a very nice 2 bedroom, 2000 square foot apartment in a secure building about 3 blocks from the Colosseum. It included a full kitchen, living room, king sized beds, a nice bathroom – and a computer with high-speed internet. It was a great retreat in the middle of Rome.

Dinner that night was at the cafe’ on the corner that was recommended to us by our host, Paolo. We had a pretty large meal that night that was pretty inexpensive – though I could have lived without the fish antipasto. William was the star of the show as he kept making eyes at the eastern European waitress. The meal ended with some of the best lemon sorbet of the trip. I’m not sure if it was included or if we just got it because “Paulo sent us”.

Before turning in for the night, I booked a tour group for the Vatican. Having been to the Vatican before – the museum and the Sistine chapel wasn’t among my favorite stops. We figured that having a guide would help understand the overwhelming collection and appreciate the tour more. I had to do a little research to figure out the best one – and ultimately selected one recommended by Rick Steves.

Tomorrow: The Vatican – and the “little mustache”.

See the rest of my pictures over at SmugMug: link

Italy 2007 – Assisi

By request of my wife, today’s adventure was to be a road trip to Assisi. Assisi is someplace I had never been in Italy – so it sounded like an interesting trip. It’s about a two-hour drive from Siena, so we’d have plenty of time to look around before heading home.

Before we left, we made another relatively fruitless search for breakfast. We ended up at a small coffee shop where we had to make do with sandwiches. Shortly before we finished up, William uttered “GUCK!” again. That’s when we realized it was a total blowout and he was tracking it around the coffee shop. We won’t tell if you won’t.

On our way to the car, we made a couple of quick stops – my mother tried to go to McDonalds and we went to the post office. We’ve tried to get my grandfather some commemorative stamp sets on each trip – and that’s always an adventure. After trying to explain to several Italian postal workers what we wanted, we finally got to the correct person. She didn’t understand a word of English – and I think we had to wait for her to take her coffee break before she started showing us our options.

By late morning, we were finally en route to Assisi. Though it wasn’t the nicest day – it was great to be able to see the Tuscan countryside. After two hours of jockeying around crazy Italian traffic, we arrived and proceeded to park at the very top. It’s a good thing that Rick directs you to park there – Assisi is on the top of a steep hill.

The Umbrian Countryside as seen from Assisi

Our plan was to follow the Rick Steves walking tour of Assisi. The tour would take us past all the important sites and end up at the famous Basilica. As with many of Rick’s walking tours, it can sometimes be a challenge to navigate by his pencil maps that leave out a lot of details. This was about par for the course and we wandered for 15 minutes before finding the start of the tour.

The tour started us at the Roman amphitheater before giving us some views of the Umbrian countryside. Before continuing the tour, we stopped for lunch at a trattoria that apparently serves lots of tourists – I think a tour bus of retired Americans was filling the place when we got there. We got some pretty decent pizzas before resuming our tour.

One of the residences in Assisi with a great view

The tour then led us past the Cathedral of San Rufino on our way to the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Claire). While inside, we shuffled our way behind a good sized group of nuns to catch a timed glimpse of the body of St. Claire. No kidding, the curtain opens every fifteen minutes on the dot for about 5 minutes.

Side note: Wow, lots of saints in Assisi. Let’s count ’em: Francis, Claire, Rufino, Maria degli Angeli, and I’m sure I’m missing some. That’s like one in a thousand per capita. My hometown of 8,000 certainly didn’t have eight saints. We did have some characters that apparently took the vow of poverty – but I think that was a different deal.

About the time we left the Basilica of St. Clair, it started to pour. It’s really tough to manage following a tour guide in heavy rain – and my Rick Steves book will never quite close again due to rain-wrinkled pages. I also kept the camera under wraps – so I didn’t get a ton of photos in Assisi.

Walking to the lower part of Assisi

By now, it was becoming late afternoon and we had to skip a few tour stops to make sure we made it to the Basilica of St. Francis while it was still open. One non-negotiable stop along the way was the gelateria, and I filled up on my daily fix of lemon sorbet.

It turned out to be a pretty good hike in the rain to get down to the Basilica. It was all the way across town and down a good sized hill. Our tour started in the lower level where St. Francis’ tomb is located. Apparently, his tomb was hidden for 500 years and was due to be revealed in the 1900s. The problem was that they forgot the exact location and it took a bit of digging to re-find him. Oops! William took the opportunity to befriend one of the many priests roaming around and he made off with a little piece of candy as a gift.

The Basilica of St. Francis

The upstairs of the Basilica is famous for the gigantic frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. These were heavily damaged during an earthquake in the late-1990’s but have been mostly restored. Sadly, a couple of priests were killed by falling frescoes a couple of days after the earthquake while surveying the damage. The peace of the experience was somewhat marred by the guards running around yelling “quiet!” and “no pictures!”. Isn’t yelling “Quiet!” counterproductive?

The trek back to the car was a long uphill grind across the entire town with a couple of gift shop stops along the way. We made it back to the car and headed down the hill to Siena just as the torrential downpour hit again.

Once back in Siena, we walked to a small restaurant near our hotel. Again, we heard that they could fit us in without reservations – but we’d have to eat FAST! It was a great little spot and extremely cheap. My antipasto was great – my pasta was great – my main dish was.. really blah. I don’t know why I thought boiled beef with green sauce (turned out to be parsley in olive oil) was somehow going to be more exiting. My mother’s dish (some sort of spicy stew) was fantastic and I filled myself up on the rest of her dinner.

Before bed, I needed to make one quick stop at the Internet Cafe’ to sync up with our lodging arrangements in Rome and to verify our arrival time. The only problem was that both internet spots in town were closed. This was cause for panic – because I didn’t have a meet up time or place arranged – and we were staying in an apartment, not a hotel. I also didn’t have the phone number for our contact – it was on my e-mail!

In desperation, I fired up WiFiFoFum on my mobile phone and started warwalking to find an unsecured access point. It used to be that people would unbox their new wireless router and plug it in without bothering to set a password or encryption. Those days are gone – I had to walk around for an hour before finding one just off Il Campo that I could connect to. Before I lost the connection, I frantically tapped out a response e-mail, copied the phone number and directions, and breathed a deep sigh of relief. To celebrate, I bought a BIG Peroni and went for a leisurely stroll around Il Campo to enjoy my beer and savor nightlife in Siena.

I spent a little too much time strolling and realized at 10:55 that I only had five minutes to get back to Alma Domus before the allegedly rigid curfew at 11 PM. After a hard march across town, I rolled in door a little sweaty but just under the curfew and headed straight to bed.

See the rest of my images from the trip to Italy right here: (link)

Italy 2007 – Siena

When we left Florence on Thanksgiving evening, we only had about a 60 minute journey to get to Siena. We quickly found the free parking lot in the shadow of the Fortezza only to find it extremely full. As I moved to pull in to the lone open parking spot, a child jumped out of a nearby car that was also trying to get that spot. The kid ran right into the spot and stood there to ‘reserve’ it. The problem was that the car he was reserving it for wasn’t even in the correct row to take it. So, I started pulling in while giving a couple of menacing revs of the accelerator – and the spot was mine.

The stairs down to Alma Domus

We checked in to Alma Domus – a hotel run by the sisters from the same order as St. Catherine. In fact, it’s located right next to her original house. Though pretty spartan, it was well-located with a good view of the old city. We dropped our bags and set out into the city to get our Thanksgiving dinner.

Taverna San Giuseppe – the site of our Thanksgiving Dinner

Our dinner that night was at Taverna San Giuseppe – a cool grotto-like restaurant located up a hill from Il Campo. We almost didn’t get in because we didn’t have reservations – but as long as we promised to be out by the second seating, they’d serve us. We got placed at a table with another group of Americans – and after a round of Happy Thanksgiving toasts, we dove in to dinner. Mine was a spiral pasta with wild boar and cheese sauce followed by the ‘mixed grill’. I’m sure the pasta was delicious – but I didn’t get to eat much. William decided it was great and that’s the last I saw of it.

Friday was spent touring Siena. After a couple of false starts with breakfast that started with a really over-sweet creamy pastry and ended with a prosciutto sandwich, we made it to the Duomo. We shouldn’t have been surprised – Rick Steves warned us that the Sieniese take their breakfast as seriously as going to the dentist. It was impossible to find good breakfast there!

The view of Alma Domus – located below and right of the Church of San Domenico

In Italy, it seems like the Sistine Chapel gets ALL the love. Personally – I hate the Sistine Chapel, but I’ll save that rant for when we get to Rome. In my book, the Duomo at Siena with the awesome Piccolomini Library is the real E-ticket ride. It’s spectacular beyond words – and the industrious Sieniese only completed about a fourth of their original plan. I’ve even seen it before (in 2002) – and it still blows me away.

The interior of the Duomo in Siena

We spent the morning touring the Duomo, and the Duomo museum where we climbed the wall of the unfinished nave. I always try to climb to the high points in town – and this was a new one. This actually got me out of climbing the Torre del Magnia – and we got some great shots.

A family portrait overlooking Siena

Lunch was had on Il Campo at Bar Il Palio – named after the famous horse race that happens twice a year in the same square. All I really remember about lunch that day was a very average sandwich with a bowl of pretty good Tuscan bean soup. The view of Il Campo is great, however.

The Palazzo Communale located on Il Campo

After a tour of the Baptistry at the Duomo, we needed to find a laundromat. Fortunately, one was located just a block away from Il Campo. We took an hour of downtime there and ran a quick load through so we had some clean clothes. There’s simply no way to travel for two weeks with a 1-year-old without doing laundry. We had actually dropped some laundry at a dry cleaner earlier that day not knowing if we’d find a laundromat – but when we found it would be 45 Euro to do one bag, we only left the essentials. Another crappy deal was when we learned what William’s third new word would be (after “Thank You” and “Doggy”) – it was “GUCK!” and he used it frequently in the laundromat. When we caught a whiff of his bouquet, we knew instantly what “GUCK” meant.

William and Heather killing time in the laundromat – pre-GUCK

Dinner was simple and fast – we had to stop for an ever-present Doner Kabab. That’s a gyro to my fellow Americans. We got ’em to go and ate them back in the room while William entertained us with his juggling prowess. Shortly after eating, we discovered that mom left her backpack at the kebab stand. There was nothing of actual value in it – but it’s inconvenient to lose things while traveling. Almost unbelievably – it was still there when we went back.

I wrapped up the night with a trip to the Gelateria to get my new favorite combo – Bacio with Coconut. It’s pretty much an Almond Joy in a cup. I took my yummy snack to the internet cafe’ so I could finalize lodging arrangements with our host in Rome. I left him a bunch of questions with a promise to return to check my messages the next night before heading back to Alma Domus to retire for the evening.

Next up – our road trip to Assisi.

See all the Italy 2007 pictures over at my SmugMug account right here: link

Italy 2007 – Florence

Venice is about history. Cinque Terre is about nature. Florence.. is about art. So.. that’s a large portion of “what’s to do” in Florence. After eating a continental breakfast in our hotel, we set off for the Accademia Gallery to see Michaelangelo’s “David“. Since we were centrally located near the Duomo, it was a short walk to get there – including my not normally questionable navigation.

I have to confess.. I’m not the world’s biggest art connoisseur outside of portraiture. Being that photography wasn’t invented for a few hundred years after the Renaissance – I’d see nothing but sculpture and painting. Apparently if you are in to it, you can derive great meaning from the expression of the paintings and how their hands are positioned – but they all kind of look the same to me. The art at the Accademia is no exception. The star of the show is the “Big Nude Dude” himself – David. Since I’ve already heard the tale of how his enlarged hand represents the hand of God – or maybe Michaelangelo just blew his proportions – I could just stand there and think:

Damn, that is one big statue.

Yeah, I’m a heathen when it comes to art. It’s still interesting to see in a “when in Rome (or Florence)” mindset, though.

After the Accademia, we stopped at a little hole in the wall called “La Mescita Fiaschetteria” for sandwiches and pasta. I had one of my favorites, porketta. William got to try a new favorite – cingale. That’s “Wild Boar” for the English crowd. I do have to admit that we didn’t know it was wild boar pasta before we ordered it – we just though it was pasta with red sauce.

La Mescita Fiaschetteria

In the afternoon, we made our way to one of my favorite stops in Florence – the leather markets of the San Lorenzo market. I really didn’t plan on buying anything – but darn if I didn’t come home with a nice brown leather jacket. It’s good fun – but you have to ignore lots of empty complements and boasts about the quality of their water buffalo jackets.

Shopping for leather at the San Lorenzo street market

On the way to the Duomo from the market, we stopped at a baby clothing store with some of the most unique and interesting baby clothing that I’ve seen. It was a challenge to not buy the store out – little William would have been the most stylish 1-year-old in Chaska! We escaped with just a few things including several gifts for others.

Next up was the Duomo – the gigantic Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. We made it in for about a half-hour before it closed for the evening. For as grand as it was on the outside, the inside is fairly plain – except for the dome. It’s pretty spectacular. Because we weren’t allowed to bring tripods in to the cathedral, I improvised and invented the “Willypod”. I wrapped my Joby Gorillapod around the handle of William’s stroller and was able to take some long exposure indoor shots.

The interior of the Duomo as seen from the entrance

Dinner that night was at the “Ristorante Paoli“. It was described in our guidebook as “wonderful local cuisine served to cheerful eaters by jolly little old men under a richly frescoed Gothic vault”. I gotta say – that about summed it up. We started with their magnificent antipasto and salad, then moved on to our main dishes. I hate to admit that I don’t remember what we had to eat that night. It was good – but I think a bit unremarkable.

After dinner, we made our second gelato stop of the day. Earlier, we stopped at the spectacular “Grom” – where the selections are made on-site and organically. It was fantastic! There were a few varieties that we couldn’t identify – like something that looked like tomato and tasted vaguely citrus-y. It was so good, we went there for dessert after dinner.

The next day was Thanksgiving Day back home – and our last day in Florence. We intended to start the day with a trip to the highly regarded Duomo museum – but discovered when we arrived that it was closed for renovation. Instead, we swung by Dante’s house – which turned out to be less than a block from our hotel. Hmm.. wonder if it was hot in there? We headed down to the Arno River and headed toward Ponte Vecchio – a historic covered bridge now lined with jewelery shops.

Ponte Vecchio

After that, we went to the nearby Uffizi Gallery for another art fix. Every guide book says to get advanced tickets for the Uffizi. We failed to heed that advice and got stuck in a long line. And – like last trip – didn’t end up going to see it. Instead, we hiked over to the much more interesting Basilica of Santa Croce that was a few blocks from there. That was a great stop.. many famous Florentines are spending eternity in Santa Croce. The tomb of Galileo is there, the tomb of Machiavelli is there – and the tomb of Michaelangelo is there.

The Basilica of Santa Croce – resting place of many famous Florentines

On the way out of town, we had a Thanksgiving lunch of – pizza. We scooped up our luggage, got a little more gelato, and went back to the leather markets to buy some belts. After a little haggling in the rain, we made our purchases and tried to find where we left the car two days before. Our navigation was spot-on – we found the car on the first try. We loaded up our little blue wagon, paid the parking, and headed off for Siena.

See the rest of my pictures on my SmugMug site here: link

Italy 2007 – Pisa and Florence

Pisa – home of that famous architectural blunder The Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’ve always been told in no uncertain terms “Don’t bother going there”. This time, we decided to ignore that advice and see it anyway since we’d have to go almost right through it driving from the Cinque Terre to Florence. For the most part – there really isn’t much to see aside from the tower. It’s made that much more charming by dozens of sleazy vendors trying to push all manner of junky trinkets at you. Little cars that beep and open and close their doors seemed to be the rage this year. I was also very disappointed not to see a “Leaning Tower of Pizza” anywhere near there.

Hey – that tower isn’t straight!

Actually, it was pretty cool to see – for about an hour. We got there at dusk, snapped some pictures and walked around the site – then returned to the car and headed for Florence.

Driving from Pisa to Florence took a little over an hour and was uneventful. Once we reached Florence, things got very eventful. We made the key mistake of blindly following Rick Steve’s directions to parking in Florence. They went something like this:

Drive in to town on the freeway and take one of the exits. I like Florence Sud. Look for the signs that say “Stadio” and follow them. Park in the municipal ramp. Oh, and be careful not to accidentally drive in to the city center – you’ll be charged 100 Euro.

Not very specific, is it? It also omits the warning about how hard it is to see the dark brown “Stadio” signs at night when they are ten feet up on a pole. It also wasn’t very specific about where the city center boundary was. Ultimately – we found the ramp after a fairly stressful hour of naviguessing our way through rush hour traffic.

We had planned on taking a bus to the area around our hotel (Albergo Firenze) – but we realized it wasn’t a long walk to get there. That walk would also take us right through the historic city center and past the Duomo.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) in Florence

Since our last meal was in Monterosso al Mare about 8 hours before, we were starving by the time we got checked in to our hotel. One of Rick Steves’ recommended eateries that didn’t require reservations was only a few short blocks away – and we had one of his handy dandy pencil maps to show us the way.

By 10:00 (when the restaurant closed), we still hadn’t found it. Rick isn’t good at labeling all streets – and this was located on one of the unlabeled streets. This turned out to be one of our luckiest breaks! We stumbled in to a wood-fired pizzeria that was open late and only served three types of pizza – Margherita, one with anchovies (Neapolitan), and one other type. It turned out to be the best pizza we had the entire trip – and we ate a lot of pizza! It might have been the 10 hours between meals – but we all devoured our Margherita pizzas and returned home to retire for the evening.

Next up – Two days in Firenze!

See all pictures on my SmugMug account here: link

Italy 2007 – Cinque Terre (Part II)

At about 11 AM on Monday, Heather and I were finally ready to start hiking. As I mentioned before, our plan was to go from Vernazza to Riomaggiore with short stops in Corniglia and Manarola.

The climb out of Vernazza is a steep one – endless flights of stairs culminating above the castle. Along the way, you pass a couple of restaurants, including one pretty high on the hill. Our speculation on how supplies were brought up were answered when we saw what could best be described as a ‘motorized tank wagon’. Any supplies would be loaded on board, then the ‘motorized tank wagon’ would noisily crawl its way up the stairs.

Vernazza from the trail to Corniglia

The walk to Corniglia was a very pleasant one – the weather was in the high 50s and overcast. That’s good hiking weather – you don’t boil or freeze. Along the way, we passed though numerous olive tree groves, vineyards, and stands of citrus trees. Being November, about all we saw still on the tree were fresh lemons and oranges. Unfortunately, they were all just out of reach.

Heather hiking through the olive groves 

In about 90 minutes, we descended in to Corniglia – the one town that isn’t down on the water. Of all the towns, Corniglia seems to be the quietest of the five. We strolled through town and took a few pictures at a lookout over the sea before getting some lunch at a cafe’. Of course, we arrived right in the middle of the afternoon siesta, so our selections were very limited. Our sandwiches turned out to be excellent, and we wolfed them down along with some gelato (of course) before leaving town.

The 45-minute walk from Corniglia to Manarola is the least interesting of the hikes in Cinque Terre. You start by walking down several hundred stairs to get down to the train station, then you pass rows of ramshackle sea cottages that are boarded up and/or being torn down. It’s not very scenic. Finally, you come around a point and pass the cemetery in Manarola as you descend in to town.

The view of Manarola from the town cemetery

We were a little worried because we took longer than anticipated to get to Manarola. Fortunately, Mom and William were waiting down by the harbor for us – and William exploded with glee when he saw us.  We spent a few moments touring the incredibly scenic cemetary (really!) and the harborside before setting off for Riomaggiore with mom & William.

Surprisingly, we actually got stopped on the trail to Riomaggiore to check our park pass.  Since it was off-season, we hadn’t seen any park rangers checking our passes.  Fortunately, we had ’em.  The walk to Riomaggiore is just a stroll along a paved trail – but still very scenic.  The high point is a stone covered walk to prevent against falling stones.

The Via del Amore’ between Manarola and Riomaggiore

We arrived in Riomaggiore late afternoon with just enough time to take a stroll around town with Rick Steves guiding us (by book, not in person).  Before leaving town, we fueled up on pizza and orange Fanta.  I’m not sure how, but Heather and I managed to talk mom into getting anchovy pizza (a local specialty).  I think we enjoyed watching her eat it more than she enjoyed eating it.

That evening, we dined at Gambero Rosso in Vernazza – supposedly the nicest place in town.  Actually, we didn’t have a lot of choice – being off-season, it was the only restaurant in town open that night.  All the rest of the foreign tourists were eating there as well.  The food was pretty good, from what I recall.   I seem to remember our epicurious mother getting black pasta colored with octopus ink or something like that.

On Tuesday morning, Heather and I planned to do the hike to Monterosso al Mare – the most difficult section of the Via del Amore.  Before doing so, we had to vacate our room and put our luggage in to the car.  Somehow, I managed to miss a step at the very top of the four flights of stairs while carrying multiple suitcases and I fell down a flight of stairs – painfully.  Being macho – I popped right to my feet and acted like nothing happened.  Not a good way to start a hike!

The view of Vernazza from the trail to Monterosso al Mare

After mistakenly climbing halfway up the seaside bluffs only to find it wasn’t our trail (it would have taken 6 hours instead of 1.5!) – we located the correct trail and set off for Monterosso al Mare.  When I was there in 2002, we went the opposite direction and I remember descending literally hundreds of steps as we came in to Vernazza.  Now, I got to climb those steps.  I huffed and puffed my way to the top, barely able to keep pace with my pregnant wife.  Quite the gal.. that one!

It was easily the nicest conditions since we arrived in Italy – 60 degrees and sunny.  It held out just long enough for us to reach Monterosso before the clouds rolled in.  After descending hundreds of steps through vineyards and citrus groves, we met mom and William (who was napping) at the edge of town.  Once again, our timing was perfect – we got to town starving smack in the middle of siesta.  We were able to find exactly one open pizza shop where we devoured some pizza and caught the train back to Vernazza.

Castle and German bunker at Monterosso al Mare

Our last major challenge in Cinque Terre was getting the car out of our parking spot and back down the steep narrow trail to the road out of town.  My plan was solid – I’d drive forward to the next switchback than maneuver myself until I got turned around.  That plan looked good – except for the people doing brick work on the church by the switchback decided to work right when I needed to leave.

My fallback plan was to drive farther up the trail to the next switchback and try again.  This would have worked – except I couldn’t make the turn on the switchback with the construction truck sitting there!  I finally resigned myself to back down the trail slowly – until somebody came up the trail blocking me in.  Yes, really.

That guy turned out to be our savior – he got the construction guys to move their vehicle and he guided me as I turned the car around.  With a high-five and a horn blast, I thanked him triumphantly and headed out of town after scooping up William and mother at the bottom.  We tiptoed our way back up the treacherous road out of town and started making our way to Pisa.

Next up – Pisa and Florence!

All pictures from the trip can be found in my SmugMug galleries here: (link)

Italy 2007 – Cinque Terre (Part I)

The trip to Cinque Terre was one of the portions of the trip I was a little nervous about. When I went there in 2002, we took the train and it drops you right in the middle of each town. Every guidebook on the planet strongly recommends against driving there – because each town is located at the bottom of a narrow, steep, switchback-laden trail. Oh yeah, and there’s no parking. So – what did we do?

We rented a car in Venice and drove there.

The journey there was uneventful enough – we left Venice early and journeyed several hours across Italy. We passed right through Modena on the way – but didn’t see any Ferraris. When we got to La Spezia, we left the freeway and ascended in to the hills. Though Cinque Terre is only a few miles as the crow flies from La Spezia, it’s 45 minutes to get there because of the roads. We quickly started to see why.

The road on top of the hill isn’t too bad – but as you get closer to the Cinque Terre, it gets much more treacherous. We were warned to watch for uphill traffic – and it was obvious why. The roads aren’t two lanes wide – and trying to downshift on a steep switchback and make the corner while passing another car heading in the opposite direction is difficult to say the least. On more than one occasion I killed the engine on a switchback and said a few things I hope William doesn’t repeat. I got very familiar with using the handbrake to start uphill with a manual transmission.

When we reached Vernazza at about 4:00 PM, I had to find our lodging and figure where to park the car. Martina – our innkeeper – had her father lead us up a very steep (30 degrees, or so it seemed) and narrow sidewalk that was barely one car wide to their parking spot. It was an angled cutout in a stone wall with an inch to spare on each side of the car. After schlepping all of our luggage down the hill to the harbor, we hauled it back up a narrow steep staircase to our fourth floor room at ‘Rooms di Martina Callo‘ right on the harbor. It was a simple but nice room with two beds overlooking the harbor.

Our room was on the top floor of the yellow building in the center

Before going to dinner, we had some focaccia and wine at the Blue Marlin bar. Our dinner that night was the best meal of the entire trip. We ate at Ristorante Incadase da Piva in Vernazza just up the street from the harbor. We ordered Piva’s signature risotto con frutti di mare (seafood risotto) and it was to die for. It was a divine savory rice stew with bits of seafood all served in a hot crock. All in all, the dish was like a big warm hug. Along side the risotto, we had some pesto gnocchi that was also top notch. Of course, this was washed down with some great Cinque Terre white wine.

Piva serving his seafood risotto

The next morning, we woke up and wandered up the street to Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre for pastries. We tried to get going early so we could hike the length of the Via del Amore’- but we missed the train and decided not to wait the hour for the next one. To make sure we didn’t finish in the dark, we postponed the rugged Vernazza – Monterosso al Mare leg of the trail for the next day. Our new plan was to hike from Vernazza to Manarola where we’d meet mom & William – then we’d all stroll together down the easy section to Riomaggiore.

The Corniglia harbor at night

That’s a story for another day..

All pictures are now online at: link

Italy 2007 – More pictures to come!

I’ve now got about half of the pictures from Italy up on my SmugMug site – and I’ll get the rest up this coming week.

See the pictures posted so far here: (link) 

Italy 2007 – Venice

Our Italian adventure started with a flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam on Thursday evening, November 15th – then from Amsterdam to Venice on Friday. It was a pretty uneventful flight and William weathered the flight very well – he slept almost the entire trip. We can thank lots of books, milk, and popcorn for that one.

There is one Italian woman that probably isn’t too fond of him and his love of popcorn, however. On takeoff from Amsterdam, William choked on a piece of popcorn and spit up into Heather’s hand. Heather dumped it into a flight sickness bag and carried on. He wasn’t phased by the experience and he proceeded to squirm around, read books, and play. The woman in front of him went nuts complaining that “It STILL STINKS” and “HE’S STILL KICKING ME!” Heather made me switch places with her and William so that I was behind the lady. I didn’t realize what was happening and just thought Heather wanted me to move. After realizing the situation, I should have moved to the only open spot – right next to the woman in front of me.

Our landlord Pierre met us at the vaporetto stop in Venice and escorted us to our apartment north near San Giovanni e Paolo and the Hospital. It was a nice (but small) apartment up four really steep flights of stairs. When he noticed that we were using a stroller, he volunteered his backpack carrier since he had small children as well. To get the carrier, had to follow him all over Venice. At least we got a guided tour along the way.

Our dinner that night was entertaining. We went to a neighborhood place that Pierre recommended. We ordered “Escalope” and we all thought we were getting scallops. Imagine our surprise when we got Veal Scallopini! Fortunately, it was delicious. On the trek back, we got fantastic blackberry and whipped creme crepes and tried not to freeze – it was a very cold walk back as temperatures were near freezing.

The Rialto Bridge in Venice

Saturday was spent touring Venice. We started the day by hiking to the Rialto bridge and market area, then over to St. Mark’s square. William was fascinated by the pigeons and started chasing them yelling “Dogie!Dogie!Dogie!” He hadn’t yet figured out that all animals aren’t “Dogies”. It was all fun and games until one landed on his head. The Asian tourists were as fascinated by William as he was by the pigeons – and he got mobbed by requests for photos.

This isn’t funny anymore!!!

After we toured St. Mark’s, we made our way to a pizzeria and had some late lunch / early dinner. We had intended to tour the Doge’s palace next – but we ran out of time before it closed. As a substitute, we took an evening cruise on the Grand Canal in the vaporetto and we got off near the train station. We hiked all the way back home that night enjoying the street scene in Venice.

After we returned, everyone wanted crepes again. I set off to quickly get the crepes and take some pictures while everyone else did some laundry in the apartment. After about two hours, three miles, and lots of looking – I finally found a crepe place and brought them home to a very hungry group. So much for my naviguessing! At least I got some great pictures. I also got home to find that the “combo washer/dryer” that Heather and mom were so excited about was really just a washing machine. Thus, the laundry hung all over the apartment for the night to dry.

Night scene near our apartment in Venice

We left Venice early on Sunday the way we came in – by vaporetto to the airport. Before we left, we strolled back to St. Mark’s Square to get some more pictures of William with the pigeons. We picked up some breakfast and our luggage on the way out and rushed to the boat so that we could get to the airport to pick up our rental car. It seemed like miles from the boat dock to the apartment when we arrived – but we laughed when we realized on the way out that it was less than 5 minutes from our apartment. We picked up our rental car, got some quick directions on how to get on the Autostrade, and took off for the Cinque Terre.

At the Bridge of Sighs in Venice

See more photos here: (link)

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